Name: Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Team: Assat (Liiga)
Stats: 57 GP, 10 goals, 19 assists, 29 points, 20 PIMs, -1 plus-minus rating
Position: Center / wing
NHL Central Scouting Ranking: 6th (European Skaters)
Comparable NHL player: Sean Monahan
Sometimes it takes a while for scouts to get a proper appreciation for a prospect.
Whether it’s because of time, distance, or any number of other reasons, it is often a challenge to find adequate time to collect enough information (whether it’s through live viewings, recorded games, highlight packages, scouting reports, interviews and everything else in between) and get an accurate, comfortable read on a player.
Some guys, usually the electrifying ones, jump out at you from the very first time you see them play, making the job of a scout a little bit easier. Other prospects, however, require much more time and close attention to get a full appreciation for.
The case of draft-eligible Finnish center Jesperi Kotkaniemi is an interesting example of this. Despite plying his trade overseas, Kotkaniemi has still been something of a known commodity to the North American hockey scouting community for a while now, thanks primarily to him playing in last spring’s IIHF U18s and last summer’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. He actually performed fairly well in both tournaments, receiving quite a few favorable reviews and getting himself onto a lot of early watch lists for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, but he never really generated much consideration and hype as one of this year’s most sought-after prospects.
At least, not until recently.
The deeper the 2017-18 season went, the more buzz for Kotkaniemi started appearing, and deservedly so. He started the year in the Liiga, Finland’s top professional league, and almost immediately emerged as one of his team’s top players, despite being just 17 years of age. He just kept getting better and better from there, including drawing more buzz by almost making Finland’s World Junior roster and then shining at the U18 5 Nations Tournament in February.
Fittingly, Kotkaniemi put the punctuation mark on his upward pre-draft trajectory by saving his best performances for last and putting them on display at the scouting season’s annual grand finale: the IIHF U18s, the 2018 version of which wrapped up in Russia at the end of April.
Kotkaniemi wasn’t the best player at this year’s U18s (that distinction went to 2019 draft-eligible forward Jack Hughes), but he was pretty darn close. The 6’2” forward played center in the tournament (he was a winger for Assat during the regular season) and was a dominating force from start to finish, scoring points (nine in seven games), winning faceoffs with aplomb, killing penalties and playing an altogether complete game that overwhelmed opponents. The icing on the cake came when he helped set up the game-winning goal in the tournament’s gold medal game, which came while playing shorthanded late in the 3rd period.
Niklas Nordgren gets his tournament-leading 8th goal of the tournament after taking the pass from Kotkaniemi while down a man. Finland leads 3-2 late in the game. #U18Worlds #NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/ZMAvSpcHnA— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisNHL) April 29, 2018
Any scouts that weren’t fully sold on Kotkaniemi before the U18s are probably singing a different tune now.
There’s no doubt that Kotkaniemi is a late riser for this year’s draft class; all that remains to be seen is just how high he’ll end up going. Top 15? Top 10? Maybe even Top 5?
When looking at his potential NHL upside, there’s certainly a lot to like. The Pori native is an expert when it comes to puck protection, using his big frame, long reach and sharp mind to keep the puck safe and secure. When it comes to “sword-fighting” (winning stick battles for pucks), he’s incredibly successful. Additionally, he’s still a little scrawny, so once he adds more muscle he’s only going to get better in this regard. It doesn’t matter what zone he’s in, once Kotkaniemi gets the puck on his stick something positive is likely to happen. He keeps a good awareness of his surroundings and isn’t phased when pressure starts to close in on him, calmly carrying the puck forward into open ice or correctly turning around and skating it back to the defensemen behind him to get something else set up. His play without the puck isn’t particularly notable, but he knows where he needs to be, competes hard and uses a quick stick to disrupt opposing players.
His 29 points from 57 Liiga games don’t tell the whole story of his offensive abilities. Kotkaniemi is a high-end playmaker, feeding hard, tape-to-tape passes through tight spaces to reach his teammates. He’s not an overly flashy passer (although he sometimes shows off nifty stick language to deke out defenders first), but he’s consistent and efficient; the puck almost always gets to where it needs to go. His shot might be his best weapon, though, as there are times where it looks like it might be among the very best in this year’s draft class. He can tailor his wrist shot to go top corner or bore though a gap in a goalie’s form, and he can really unleash some powerful, accurate slap shots and one-timers if he’s given too much time and space.
No in-depth analysis of Kotkaniemi can be written, however, without mention of his skating. Word has spread wide that his skating is a weakness, and there is certainly a lot of truth to that. His stride is hunched over and clunky, hurting the amount of speed and power that he derives from it. But even though Kotkaniemi’s skating is the biggest weakness in his game, it’s not something that should prevent him from being successful in the NHL. There is improvement to be made, sure, but he has a long stride and keeps his feet moving, allowing him to still be a threat in transition as well as make twists and turns in tight traffic. He also has a very impressive knack for quickly shifting gears, which he’ll bust out if he needs to throw off an opponent and buy a little more time and space to make a shot or a pass.
The 2018 draft is a weak one for centers, so that certainly helps boost Kotkaniemi’s status (even though he played wing this year in Finland, he possesses all the tools necessary to be a center in the NHL). But make no mistake: Kotkaniemi can really play. He might even end up becoming the best center from this draft, even better than Joe Veleno, in due time.
Kotkaniemi went underappreciated for most of this season, but there’s very little chance of that happening again come draft day.